The feedback from the twitterati is included below after the jump (if you chimed in already via twitter, your response may be listed for all of the 1WD faithful to see – don’t say I didn’t warn ya!).
The short (and grossly oversimplified) answers to the question, by the way, seem to be "Yes!" for wine geeks and "No, who cares as long as the juice tastes good!" for the majority of people, based on the twitter responses that I received.
The topic of wine yeasts, and why they seem to touch off a hot-button reaction among wine pros and the geekier of wine aficionados, requires a bit of a primer, because to most wine drinkers, this is gonna be some pretty esoteric shiz.
During my last trip to Napa, I stopped into Chimney Rock for some barrel samples tasting (that’s samples of wines from barrels, not tasting samples of barrels) and spent a few hours geeking out over all things wine-related with the affable Elizabeth Vianna (CM’s winemaker who last week was promoted to GM). Elizabeth is open, honest, and easy to get along with, and she’s not shy when it comes to expressing her opinions. And yet, when she was explaining the winemaking process behind each of Chimney Rock’s wines, she became almost apologetic when she mentioned that they – gasp! – inoculate their wines with cultured yeasts!
Imagine, the audacity! The HORROR!!!…
I think Elizabeth got skittish around the yeast topic because it’s almost as divisive among wine pros and wine geeks as Biodynamics (ok, it’s not quite that bad, but it’s close). For some reason, the topic of which style of yeasts are used by winemakers has taken on way, way, way too much importance in wine geek circles, and occasionally in reviews and profile pieces where it feels, through implication, as though any wine not using native yeasts, (or if filtered, and/or fined), must somehow be inferior to those that take things as far as can reasonably be done au naturel (when it comes to the wine itself, I mean, not the winemakers… though I certainly wouldn’t put nude winemaking past a good percentage of the winemakers that I know… ok, whatever…).
Now, generally speaking, winemakers have two options when it comes to yeasts. They can use wild yeasts (which exist naturally in the winery and wherever the grapes where grown); or, they can inoculate with cultured yeasts to start fermentation. Either way, without yeasts converting sugar into alcohol, you’re not gonna get any wine – so we’re not talking about the importance of yeasts, just about whether or not it matters to people if the yeasts used are cultured or not.
Cultured yeasts are more predictable – they are cultured specifically for behavior at certain temperatures, and/or for flavors that they help to impart into the finished wine. Wild yeasts typically are less predictable, a bit more difficult to work with as a result, but can (in the best cases) impart what some consider to be rougher-hewn but more characterful flavors than the "cleaner" ones that result from their cultured counterparts.
I’m certainly not saying that any process performed behind closed doors in a winery should be ignored by consumers; the end doesn’t justify all of the means, but honestly… how far should we rationally take this stuff?
Case in point: do Chimney Rock’s wines suffer somehow from not using wild yeasts? It’s an impossible question to answer without somehow having side-by-side wines made from grapes in exactly the same location and in exactly the same way except for the yeasts involved. But I can tell you this: Chimney Rock makes some really, really good wine – and personally, I don’t give a sh*t what type of yeasts they use. And neither should you, if the thing you care the most about is what’s in the bottle at the end of the process.
Great wines are made in the world’s most storied wine regions with both categories of yeast, and if there’s a morally-superior yeast option then it certainly has never revealed itself to me in the bottle. I can tell you I have personal preferences when it comes to what I like, particularly with Chardonnay (when it’s not coming from Chablis), where I like the characterful complexity that wild yeasts can impart. But my personal predilections do not equate to one wine being inherently superior to another.
My friend Steve McIntosh from Winethropology.com summed up it best, I think, when we exchanged some thoughts over e-mail on the topic of why yeasts don’t really matter:
“I’ve always associated cultured yeasts with beer-making more than quality winemaking. Of all the wineries I’ve toured and winemakers I’ve rapped with, the topic of yeast has only come up anecdotally. Even then, they’ve only mentioned it when they use wild yeast. I guess I had (mistakenly) assumed that most higher-end wineries rely exclusively on hands-off, wild-only yeast.
Then, just yesterday, I was chatting with a winemaker on Facebook. This is a guy whose wines I’ve been loving and recommending for a while. Right there on his Facebook page is a picture of his boxes of Lalvin Rhone 4600 and T73.
WTF?!? Commercial yeast?! In some of my favorite wines?!? It can’t be.
Of course it can. It is.And not just his wines, either.
My outrage quickly dissipated, recalling just how damn good his last Grenache was. Sure, the romantic in me wants to believe that nothing is ever added to the wines I serve my friends and family. But the truth is that my attention quickly refocuses on what I love the most about wine: the experience, not necessarily the ingredients.”
Amen to that!
Where do you stand on yeasts? Should we get our vinous panties in a wad, or is this much ado about nothing when it comes to enjoying wine?
Here’s what some of you said on the topic last week:
billward4: Not in the lees, er, least.
vinniebasile: Wild yeasts add to the ‘terroir’ aspect of wine which I enjoy…but then, sometimes that’s not necessarily gonna be a good thing.